STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI Thrills Much More Than It Frustrates

*NOTE: The original headline read STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI Frustrates As Much As It Thrills.  Upon a second viewing, I felt it necessary to edit my review. I’ll admit, as a lifelong STAR WARS fan, a release of a new film always puts me on edge. I can admit when I’m wrong and THE LAST JEDI is a thrilling chapter in the STAR WARS saga. The second time around, most of the flaws held true, but overall the light side far outweighed the dark. My original review can be found unedited at the bottom of this article.

 

          -Mike Vanderbilt

 

 

 

There’s a moment in THE LAST JEDI where the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) smashes his helmet in a fit of rage after being belittled by Supreme Leader Snoke for his costume. Ren’s get up was as much an ode to the character’s idol Darth Vader as it was a throwback to the original STAR WARS trilogy. The latest STAR WARS adventure seeks to “destroy the past”— a theme in the film—by attempting to avoid the critiques of 2017’s THE FORCE AWAKENS being simply a retread of the 1977 original. While JEDI certainly is not a riff on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, it does feel like writer/director Rian Johnson culled sequences from EMPIRE, RETURN OF THE JEDI—and even takes a few cues from the maligned prequel trilogy—and rearranged them at random. If THE FORCE AWAKENS was the film to get older fans back in the saddle, THE LAST JEDI is made for the generation of STAR WARS fans that were introduced to the dysfunctional Skywalkers through Padme, Ani, and Qui Gon Jin. That said, there’s enough of those terrific, classic STAR WARS stylings—a dirty, lived in universe, frontier style landscapes, and a brisk sense of fun—to satisfy the old timers as well. Featuring slam-bang action, lots of quick and witty dialogue, and some terrifically memorable character moments. the more modern in style LAST JEDI is certainly overstuffed, at times exhausting and even unsatisfying, but remains a thrilling STAR WARS adventure.

 

The film opens what feels like days or perhaps hours after the climax of THE FORCE AWAKENS with the Resistance on the run from the evil First Order. The opening space battle is thrilling and compellingly shot; director Rian Johnson gives the audience a real sense of space, never crowding the screen with too many ships and giving a real sense of urgency and emotion to the action as hotshot flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) takes on a dreadnaught Star Destroyer on his own. THE LAST JEDI then makes way into an extended chase sequence—owing a bit to MAD MAX: FURY ROAD—that extends through most of the film’s almost three hour run time. The film hits the ground running and keeps running.

 

THE LAST JEDI feels like it’s rushing towards the finish line, never slowing down enough to give the characters a real chance to breathe and get to know one another, and by that allowing the audience to do the same. The runtime of the film leads to pacing issues; sometimes there can be too much of a good things, and sometimes Johnson doesn’t know what the good thing is. One of the most entertaining tropes of the series is when the characters get to explore fantastic new worlds. The heroes split up, with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) training Rey (Daisy Ridley) on the misty planet of Ahch-To, Dameron dealing with a power struggle with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) while on the run from The First Order, and Finn (John Boyega) and newly introduced freedom fighter Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to a casino on Canto Bight. Canto Bight—a sort of Monte Cristo meets French Riviera—is a stand out in THE LAST JEDI. The audience is introduced to the 1% of the STAR WARS universe: arms dealers decked out in evening wear and sipping on champagne, featuring inspired, classic sci-fi style costuming on its police force that recalls the old Marvel run of STAR WARS comic books and Ralph McQuarrie concept art.

 

Unfortunately for as much as Johnson’s camera sweeps around the planet and the interior of the gambling parlor, the audience never really gets a chance to take in the surroundings, the film almost cutting away each time things really seem to be getting interesting. In the sequences between Rey and Luke, it feels like they barely get to know each other, much less have her trained to use the Force. There’s so much intercutting going on between the heroes and the villains that Kylo Ren—arguably the most interesting and complex character of the new films—gets the short shrift. Adam Driver mopes and mumbles throughout the film and really only gets to come alive in the third act when Ren becomes unhinged. While STAR WARS is best told in broad strokes, lending to the imagination of the audience, it helps to slow down and look around. As a result, the film feels disjointed.THE LAST JEDI is made for a different generation of film fan than the original series, its pacing having more in common with a Marvel superhero story, HARRY POTTER, or LORD OF THE RINGS (particularly with its multiple endings.). The telepathic conversations between Kylo Ren and Rey especially feel clunky, telling the audience big bits of exposition rather than showing. While a STAR WARS film—or any actioner—should indeed move quickly and keep the audience entertained, THE LAST JEDI feels more like a collection of moments—albeit genuinely exciting and visually impressive moments—rather than a complete story.

 

While the plotting of the film may be half-baked, the characters come alive in THE LAST JEDI, propelling the film. John Boyega shines, as does Kelly Marie Tran. Together, they supply the film with that camaraderie one expects  and wants from a STAR WARS film. They join the lineage of great onscreen duos, from Han and Luke to Threepio and Artoo. There’s an easy-going, natural chemistry between the two actors that translates to the screen and the characters. There is even a hint of romance that was sorely missing from THE FORCE AWAKENS and spinoff film, ROGUE ONE. Tran brings a depth and coolness to her character that makes it impossible to take your eyes off her whenever she’s onscreen. Their storyline leads them to master hacker DJ played with genuine gusto by Benicio Del Toro. The villains remain the most interesting and complex characters of the new trilogy and it’s terrifically fun to watch Kylo Ren and General Hux (Domhall Gleeson) jockey for control of The First Order. While it’s wonderful to see Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill again, this film really does belong to the new characters, which is a double edged lightsaber. Older fans are going to leave wishing they spent more time with Luke and Leia, but this isn’t their story. This is a modernly directed STAR WARS tale for the next generation, and the film focuses on the new crew of heroes.

There’s a brisk sense humor that flows through THE LAST JEDI. When the jokes hit, they hit hard like they came from the Lawrence Kasdan playbook (particularly Poe Dameron tooling with General Hux in the films opening) but some of the one liners—cribbing from the quippy style of Joss Whedon’s AVENGERS films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe—draw attention to themselves and cut down the soapy drama that has propelled the STAR WARS series since EMPIRE. There’s a particular crack from Daisy Ridley’s Rey about a shirtless Kylo Ren that while funny, really doesn’t have a place in the scene and in turn kills any dramatic tension.There’s also an abundance of slapstick that—while always a part of the series—seems to have more in common with Jar Jar Binks than Artoo and Threepio. Sometimes it plays, more often it doesn’t. Not everything needs to be gritty, but THE LAST JEDI could have benefited from leaning into some darker places.

 

 

 

 

The film does tie up loose ends and attempts to give payoffs to the hanging threads not only from THE FORCE AWAKENS but Luke Skywalker’s personal journey from the original films. There does seem to be an attempt to squeeze the best elements of EMPIRE and RETURN OF THE JEDI into the film, the problem is, some of it feels unearned as they’re happening just too soon in the series. Ridley, Driver, and Andy Serkis’ as Snoke do command the screen when they’re together, bringing a real sense of pulpy drama to rehashed EMPIRE STRIKES BACK via RETURN OF THE JEDI bits. One of the best is the confrontation between Finn and Captain Phasma, having been expertly, and simply built upon from THE FORCE AWAKENS. The audience hasn’t spent enough time with these characters for the pay offs to carry any real weight and on the flipside, Luke Skywalker’s arc feels a touch unsatisfying, but at the same time perfectly fits in the theme of hope that has flowed through STAR WARS since 1977.  Hamill delivers a great performance, but his character feels lost in the shuffle. Hamill’s reunion with Artoo is a stand out in the film filled with so much emotion, despite the fact that he’s talking to what amounts to a prop. It’s a perfect blend of characterization and nostalgia for long time fans.

 

 

THE LAST JEDI thrills far more than it frustrates. There’s so much good in the film: the set design and costuming are spot on from the beat up leather jackets, to the samurai influenced Praetorian guards, and an ultra cool Luke Skywalker in Jedi garb. There is a gangbusters lightsaber battle that—while not as rough and sweaty as this reviewer would have liked—is an all timer and the reveal of Rey’s lineage is smartly written by Johnson and wonderfully played by Driver and Ridley. John Williams’ score is arguably the real star of the film this time around,  expertly weaving new themes with the classics that have been rattling around in fans’ brains for forty years and Johnson pulls off some truly beautiful shots. Unfortunately, with a STAR WARS film being released what will probably be every year until we all become one with the Force, there will be more pretty ok ones than truly great ones. THE LAST JEDI sits somewhere in the middle as a very good entry in the STAR WARS series. Johnson takes some risks with the story—maybe not enough of them to truly make THE LAST JEDI a classic—and some of them pay off, and some of them fall flat, or feel like cheats. With J.J. Abrams coming back in the fold for the trilogy’s conclusion, perhaps his more traditional approach to filmmaking can provide a satisfying conclusion to this interesting new saga.

—MIKE VANDERBILT

 

There’s a moment in THE LAST JEDI where the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) smashes his helmet in a fit of rage after being belittled by Supreme Leader Snoke for his costume. Ren’s get up was as much an ode to the character’s idol Darth Vader as it was a throwback to the original STAR WARS trilogy. The latest STAR WARS adventure seeks to “destroy the past”— a theme in the film—by attempting to avoid the critiques of 2017’s THE FORCE AWAKENS being simply a retread of the 1977 original. While JEDI certainly is not a riff on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, it does feel like writer/director Rian Johnson culled sequences from EMPIRE, RETURN OF THE JEDI—and even takes a few cues from the maligned prequel trilogy—and rearranged them at random. If THE FORCE AWAKENS was the film to get older fans back in the saddle, THE LAST JEDI is made for the generation of STAR WARS fans that were introduced to the dysfunctional Skywalkers through Padme, Ani, and Qui Gon Jin. While infinitely more enjoyable than the prequel trilogy featuring slam-bang action, witty dialogue, and some terrifically memorable character moments, the more modern in style LAST JEDI just misses the mark, feeling overstuffed and at the same time more hollow than audiences expect from STAR WARS.

 

The film opens what feels like days or perhaps hours after the climax of THE FORCE AWAKENS with the Resistance on the run from the evil First Order. The opening space battle is thrilling and compellingly shot; director Rian Johnson gives the audience a real sense of space, never crowding the screen with too many ships and giving a real sense of urgency and emotion to the action as hotshot flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) takes on a dreadnaught Star Destroyer on his own. THE LAST JEDI then makes way into an extended chase sequence—owing a bit to MAD MAX: FURY ROAD—that extends through most of the film’s almost three hour run time. The film hits the ground running and keeps running.

 

And that’s where the film falters.

 

THE LAST JEDI feels like it’s rushing towards the finish line, never slowing down enough to give the characters a real chance to breathe and get to know one another, and by that allowing the audience to do the same. One of the most entertaining tropes of the series is when the characters get to explore fantastic new worlds. The heroes split up, with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) training Rey (Daisy Ridley) on the misty planet of Ahch-To, Dameron dealing with a power struggle with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) while on the run from The First Order, and Finn (John Boyega) and newly introduced freedom fighter Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to a casino on Canto Bight. Canto Bight—a sort of Monte Cristo meets French Riviera—is a stand out in THE LAST JEDI. The audience is introduced to the 1% of the STAR WARS universe: arms dealers decked out in evening wear and sipping on champagne, featuring inspired, classic sci-fi style costuming on its police force that recalls the old Marvel run of STAR WARS comic books and Ralph McQuarrie concept art. Unfortunately for as much as Johnson’s camera sweeps around the planet and the interior of the gambling parlor, the audience never really gets a chance to take in the surroundings, the film almost cutting away each time things really seem to be getting interesting. In the sequences between Rey and Luke, it feels like they barely get to know each other, much less have her trained to use the Force. There’s so much intercutting going on between the heroes and the villains that Kylo Ren—arguably the most interesting and complex character of the new films—gets the short shrift. Adam Driver mopes and mumbles throughout the film and really only gets to come alive in the third act when Ren becomes unhinged. While STAR WARS is best told in broad strokes, lending to the imagination of the audience, it helps to slow down and look around. As a result, the film feels disjointed.THE LAST JEDI is made for a different generation of film fan than the original series, its pacing having more in common with a Marvel superhero story, HARRY POTTER, or LORD OF THE RINGS (particularly with its multiple endings.). The telepathic conversations between Kylo Ren and Rey especially feel clunky, telling the audience big bits of exposition rather than showing. While a STAR WARS film—or any actioner—should indeed move quickly and keep the audience entertained, THE LAST JEDI feels more like a collection of moments—albeit genuinely exciting and visually impressive moments—rather than a complete story.

 

While the plotting of the film may be half-baked, the characters come alive in THE LAST JEDI, propelling the film. John Boyega shines, as does Kelly Marie Tran. Together, they supply the film with that camaraderie one expects  and wants from a STAR WARS film. They join the lineage of great onscreen duos, from Han and Luke to Threepio and Artoo. There’s an easy-going, natural chemistry between the two actors that translates to the screen and the characters. There is even a hint of romance that was sorely missing from THE FORCE AWAKENS and spinoff film, ROGUE ONE. Tran brings a depth and coolness to her character that makes it impossible to take your eyes off her whenever she’s onscreen. Their storyline leads them to master hacker DJ played with genuine gusto by Benicio Del Toro. The villains remain the most interesting and complex characters of the new trilogy and it’s terrifically fun to watch Kylo Ren and General Hux (Domhall Gleeson) jockey for control of The First Order. While it’s wonderful to see Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill again, this film really does belong to the new characters, which is a double edged lightsaber. Older fans are going to leave wishing they spent more time with Luke and Leia, but this isn’t their story.

There’s a brisk sense humor that flows through THE LAST JEDI. When the jokes hit, they hit hard but some of the one liners—cribbing from the quippy style of Joss Whedon’s AVENGERS films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe—draw attention to themselves and cut down the soapy drama that has propelled the STAR WARS series since EMPIRE. There’s a particular crack from Daisy Ridley’s Rey about a shirtless Kylo Ren that while funny, really doesn’t have a place in the scene and in turn kills any dramatic tension.There’s also an abundance of slapstick that—while always a part of the series—seems to have more in common with Jar Jar Binks than Artoo and Threepio. Not everything needs to be gritty, but THE LAST JEDI could have benefited from leaning into some darker places.

 

 

 

 

The film does tie up loose ends and attempts to give payoffs to the hanging threads not only from THE FORCE AWAKENS but Luke Skywalker’s personal journey from the original films. There does seem to be an attempt to squeeze the best elements of EMPIRE and RETURN OF THE JEDI into the film, the problem is, some of it feels unearned as they’re happening just too soon in the series. One of the best is the confrontation between Finn and Captain Phasma, having been built on from THE FORCE AWAKENS. The audience hasn’t spent enough time with these characters for the pay offs to carry any real weight and on the flipside, Luke Skywalker’s arc feels underwhelming. Hamill delivers a great performance, but his character feels lost in the shuffle. Hamill’s reunion with Artoo is a stand out in the film filled with so much emotion, despite the fact that he’s talking to what amounts to a prop. It’s a perfect blend of emotion and nostalgia for long time fans.

 

 

THE LAST JEDI frustrates as much as it thrills. There’s a lot of good: the set design and costuming are spot on from the beat up leather jackets, to the samurai influenced Praetorian guards, and an ultra cool Luke Skywalker in Jedi garb. There is a gangbusters lightsaber battle that—while not as rough and sweaty as it should be—is an all timer and the reveal of Rey’s lineage is smartly written by Johnson and wonderfully played by Driver and Ridley. John Williams’ score expertly weaves new themes with the classics that have been rattling around in fans’ brains for forty years and Johnson pulls off some truly beautiful shots. Unfortunately, with a STAR WARS film being released what will probably be every year until we all become one with the Force, there will be more pretty ok ones than truly great ones. Johnson takes some risks with the story—maybe not enough of them to truly make THE LAST JEDI a classic—and some of them pay off, and some of them do not. With J.J. Abrams coming back in the fold for the trilogy’s conclusion, perhaps his more traditional approach to filmmaking can provide a satisfying conclusion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Vanderbilt

Mike Vanderbilt

Mike Vanderbilt is a freelance writer and contributor based on the south side of Chicago. Mike has appeared on The A.V. Club, The Chicago Reader, Fangoria, and Consequence Of Sound tackling a variety of subjects ranging from Cheap Trick, George Lucas' Red Tails, and for better or worse knows a thing or two about online dating. A bartender by trade, he holds a degree in accountancy but he was never very good at it.When not mixing cocktails, Mike hosts and produces the Drinks On Monday With The Strike Team podcast, as well as Revenge Of The Pod People. He can also be seen performing with his power pop band The Romeros and punk act Modern Day Rippers.
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